One of the most common questions I get asked by friends and colleagues working in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) arena is – “What’s next?” This often cascades into, “How can I guide my company in re-imagining its social impact and community programs?” “How do I stay focused on the issues that are important now versus in the future?” And, how can I be an engaged, impactful leader through these challenging times and in the future without distraction?”
It turns out that many of these answers are in our control. It is not easy, but as I tackle these exciting questions with my clients, I find myself returning to core best practices and philosophies. Some of these ideas may seem obvious and simple, while others may seem like a lot to take on at this time. For me, the following practices keep me grounded, inspired, and hopeful in navigating our new normal:
Re-evaluate Your Social Impact Goals and Criteria: Every strong social impact strategy and program portfolio has a set of clearly defined social and business objectives. These goals and corresponding criteria guide our work, where and how we invest resources, and our approach. Now is the right time to pause to engage key stakeholders and decision-makers to re-evaluate and begin to think differently. Consider some big questions - What societal issue(s) do we need to focus on? Who are the beneficiaries of our investments? What business goals do we have to deliver on as we put our company’s muscle behind social issues? How will we engage others and lead? Codify these goals and criteria to help executives stay aligned and guide others.
Deepen Your Social Issue Knowledge: Part of best practice social impact work is becoming an expert on specific social issues. Be an active listener and learner, embracing curiosity each day and following the shifting needs and opportunities within your issue territories. Research your issue areas now—talk to your partners, look for other experts from all sectors, and understand the latest data. Take time to further explore the UN Sustainable Development Goals. There is not an issue out there that has not been impacted by COVID-19 so get confident about what you find, and then assess its implications for your company’s efforts.
Embrace Empathy and Understand Your Beneficiary: Design Thinking is not a new concept for the social impact arena. It has thankfully become a best practice in how we apply empathy and proactively get to know our program beneficiaries’ needs, feelings, and ideas. As we deploy efforts to support students, workers, small business, people out of work, seniors, and other populations, find ways to create your own listening and learning tour. Over the past two years, I have been working to address senior isolation and loneliness, an emotional issue for me both personally and professionally. When COVID-19 struck, this challenge immediately worsened for so many older adults. Through my relationships with family, friends, and nonprofits, I have been calling seniors in assisted living and nursing homes as well as others sheltering at home to check in. These conversations are providing deeper understanding of the difficult realities and have enabled me and my clients to explore a range of more informed and empathetic solutions.
Pilot, Test, and Learn: Once you define your goals, research your issues, and embrace empathy, you are going to come up with some bold new ideas and programs. Many of them will empower you, and others may completely overwhelm you and your team. So where to begin? Imagine your new ideas taking shape in “bite-sized” models from which you can pilot, test, and learn. Create mini programs that have the potential to become part of a larger initiative. You do not have to apply big resources right away—map to and apply Design Thinking models, be courageous, and give your idea a try over a short time frame. Do not be afraid to make mistakes; this is actually an essential part of the journey.
As you proactively seek ways to address ever-changing and urgent societal needs, be bold and brave in re-imagining what’s next for you and your company. And, while your head is down in this work, make time to reach out to peers to connect and vent, and seek out an hour of fresh air and exercise. I have found these daily moments of connection and reflection to be most rewarding in helping maintain my energy, passion, and determination.
Onward with positivity!
Nikki Korn is Principal and Chief Strategy Officer at Cause Consulting and has been working with companies on social impact strategy and program development for over twenty years. firstname.lastname@example.org